I tried getting into Iraq the easy way first, by applying for a tourist visa. The first Iraqi I ever met, a diplomat in Bangladesh, clapped me on the shoulders when I rang the embassy’s buzzer and asked for a visa in early 2001. “Let me tell you about my country,” he said, shifting in his sandals and flicking a cigarette butt into a puddle. No one gets in as a tourist, he explained, except by joining an expensive group tour. He looked me over — my dirty hat, scuffed boots, goofy grin — and said I could never afford it.

His was the friendliest of several Iraqi visa denials I would receive over the next two years, and it made me want to visit all the more. Some of the impulse to visit was the urge to defy these bureaucrats, to see what an entire sinister… More…

Matthew, the small Burmese Kayin man who worked the front desk at the Lotus Guesthouse, was the first one to suggest that Mr. Benny might be dead. “Benny went back to Burma so he could die near his family,” he told me, his eyes fixed on the TV set as flickering Shiites danced in the streets of Iraq. “He was too sick to live in Thailand any more.”

I had just returned to the rainy border town of Ranong, Thailand, after an absence of five months. It was April 9, 2003, the day U.S. tanks rolled into central Baghdad. Matthew had been squatting in the guesthouse lobby, translating BBC commentary for the other hotel workers — all of them illegal migrant workers from Burma. Deciphering the images from Iraq proved to be a difficult process, since even the BBC commentators didn’t seem to know what was going on. Had Baghdad… More…